A great deal is being written about the death of Luciano Pavarotti. What strikes me about many of the obituaries and tributes is the number of negative characteristics cited by the writers. It seems that for every triumph, there is a caveat. The glorious Italianate voice that could ‘bing’ nine high C’s in a row, is diluted by the artist’s so-called ‘laziness’ to grow his repertory–relying primarily on a series of known roles and past triumphs.
What I recall as the lucky host of a dozen or so Pavarotti appearances in the Celebrity Series is the beauty of tone, the sheer satisfaction of pleasing an audience, a distinctive sound that was ‘unmistakable.’ God did indeed ‘kiss his tonsils’ to quote an Italian opera-saying.
He was the embodiment of our ‘Golden Age of Singing.’ For years, I read of a bygone golden age of singing that may never be duplicated. Would we ever hear the qualities of a Caruso, Gigli, Schipa, Gobbi, Flagstad? I say we have been living in a golden age of singing equal to any bygone era. Think of Tebaldi, Sutherland, Callas, Leontyne Price, Renee Fleming, Domingo, Tucker, Corelli, and of course, Pavarotti.
The ‘ditzers’ scoff at the out-size bulk, but it carried an outsize personality within it. If you happened to see the ‘Maestro’ on the street, would you mistake him for someone else—the flamboyant costume of scarves and voluminous shirts, the distinctive fedora, the theatrical mustache and beard, and that smile–oh, that smile–of a man in love with life, relishing his gift, because indeed it is a gift.
Yes, there was much to criticize. The recital programs were limited, often repeated. There were the familiar Tosti songs–but oh, how sublimely they were rendered. The arias were often familiar from the last program–from “Boheme,” “Tosca,” and of course, what became his signature aria, ‘Nessun dorma.’ But would you say, “Please Luciano, not one more ‘Nessun dorma.’”
I first heard Luciano singing in “La Boheme,” at the Hynes Auditorium during a matinee of a Metropolitan Opera tour performance. We booked him in recital a few years later, the first of many glorious Symphony Hall recitals, many with the incomparable John Wustman at the keyboard – just the two of them on a bare Symphony Hall stage enchanting a rapt capacity audience.
I remember a phone call from Pavarotti’s manager, Herbert Breslin, during a Met Opera contretemps that cancelled several New York performances including one by Luciano. Could we present Luciano in recital with but a few days’ notice? The reply was a cautious yes; not surprisingly, the concert was completely sold out in twenty-four hours following several announcements on the radio. That concert took place at the Opera House. In subsequent years, there were concerts with orchestra presented at the Wang Center. Once, the building was shutdown for emergency roof repairs three days before a scheduled concert; we moved it to the Hynes Auditorium to accommodate the 4000 ticket holders, exchanging the tickets on the fly.
Following a great deal of preparation, the hall was ready, the audience in place, the orchestra prepared to take the stage-but where is the maestro, asked the conductor? For all our preparation, we forgot to pick up Luciano at the Ritz Carlton where he sat in the lobby waiting for his ride to the auditorium. I raced over in my car and delivered one sizable tenor for his concert appearance.
Luciano did return to Symphony Hall for concerts in later years. But following the famous ‘Three Tenors Concert,’ we saw little of him for a few years; that is, until we were asked to manage a concert appearance at the Boston Garden–not the ideal place for a song recital, but tell that to ten thousand delighted fans who came to bask in the sunshine of that glorious voice.
There was one last Symphony Hall concert in his declining years. The bloom was off the voice, the maestro’s legs and hips–weary of carrying his enormous bulk, prevented him from striding off the stage between groups of songs. He retired behind a curtain on stage that allowed him to rest and sit down between numbers. Despite his physical setbacks, he was still able to thrill an audience and send people home with happy memories.
Our association with Luciano ended finally with that concert. His further decline in ability and health is more than amply documented.
I remember the glory, the sunny Italianate voice, ‘unmistakable,’ and perhaps never to be duplicated. There will be new tenors labeled as the ‘next Pavarotti,’ but there will only be one Luciano, currently appearing before an enthralled audience of gods high atop Mt. Olympus.
Walter Pierce joined The Celebrity Series of Boston in 1956. He retired as Executive Director in 1996.